Bargain Wines: Expert Tips for Finding High-Quality Vino at Budget-Friendly Prices
Follow this guide to score affordable wines without sacrificing quality.
Pamela is a freelance food and travel writer based in Astoria, Queens. While she writes about most things edible and potable (and accessories dedicated to those topics,) her real areas of expertise are cheese, chocolate, cooking and wine. She's a culinary school grad, certified sommelier, former bartender and fine dining captain with 10 years in the industry. When not sitting at the keys, she leads in-home cheese classes, wine tastings and cocktail demonstrations.
After a long day at work, there is little that's more satisfying than breaking open a nice bottle of vino. But before you reach for your corkscrew and that tasty bottle of Tempranillo, make sure it's a sommelier-approved choice. For instance, there are cheap wines, and there are value wines. Cheap wines may only set you back a few bucks, but their quality is, well, questionable. Value wines, on the other hand, can have a wide range of prices, from genuinely inexpensive to kinda pricey, but they overdeliver at whatever price they are. Cara Patricia is a sommelier and co-owner of San Francisco's DecantSF and shared some value wine-buying tips over email recently. "If [the price] seems too good to be true, it is," she said. "Wine can be cheap, but it has a cost."
Figuring out those wines that represent excellent value can be challenging, even for educated wine consumers, which is why people like Patricia have jobs they love. (Pro tip: Corks over screw caps don't necessarily mean a better wine.) Wine is a huge category to which people such as sommeliers and other wine professionals dedicate their lives.
As casual vino consumers, we're not expected to know everything or even anything, and yet sometimes we still feel intimidated asking for help. Somewhere in the last couple of decades, it feels like the prevailing attitude became that wine knowledge was a requirement for urbane adults. But what's an urbane adult to do when sometimes it feels like the only word we have to describe our wine preference is "dry," and the only financial strategy we have when buying wine is to choose the second least expensive selection? (Hint: This does not often represent the most bang for your buck.)
Patricia's wine motto is "drink for yourself," and DecantSF is known for its relaxed approach to connecting people with wines they'll love, without even a soupçon of pretension. As a woman- and queer-owned business, the top order of business at DecantSF is inclusivity, including on matters of budget. Using Patricia's wine expertise and consumer-friendly attitude, here are seven strategies on how to shop for the best value wines.
"You're not going to get a wine expert at a big box store," Patricia said. "Shop at boutique stores where the experts are," and you'll have access to a wealth of knowledge honed over many years of studying, evaluating, and most importantly, drinking wine. Wine pros are often on a budget, too. "Go to a shop and ask for staff picks in your budget," Patricia advised. "If you're looking for wines under $25, ask for the staff's favorite wines, as that's what they are probably drinking most often at home."
"At DecantSF, we blind taste everything before we bring it into the shop, and the hardest section to blind taste for is our least expensive wines," Patricia said. "We really want these wines to over-deliver on value and deliciousness, so we're super picky with what we bring in. We stock our own homes with those wines, so they have to be good!"
You have every right to your budget and should never feel self-conscious about what you're looking to spend. Wine pros deal every day with people whose budgets are in the tens of dollars, as well as people whose budgets are in the tens of thousands of dollars. Either way, they are prepared to play matchmaker and take a great deal of professional pride in connecting people to the right bottles along any budget considerations.
"If I've learned one thing from being a restaurant sommelier and shop owner, it is: cut to the chase and be honest with what you're looking for," Patricia said. "Be upfront with what you want," especially if you're working with a tight budget. For example, she suggests opening with something like: "I'm looking for a red wine under $30. I've previously enjoyed wines like X, Y, and Z and would like something similar. Do you have any suggestions?" You are more likely to have a positive wine-shopping experience if you open with honesty.
Wine apps and websites are a great way to price compare and ensure you're not overpaying. Try one of these three free wine apps to make sure you're not getting gouged.
Avoid wine trends
"Be wary of fads, Instagram darlings or egregious marketing," Patricia said. A disproportionate amount of marketing dollars are spent on just a fraction of the world's wines. (Looking at you, Whispering Angel.) Most top-quality wine producers prefer to keep their dollars in the vineyards and winery, making excellent wines. They rely on their own tasting rooms, plus sommeliers and wine store staff to do the marketing for them, based on genuine enjoyment of the wines, rather than expensive ads and sponsorships with influencers. "There is often a premium upcharge on the coolest or hottest wines," Patricia said, "and you can tell when a lot of the money is going into the marketing instead of the product."
Orange or amber wines, however, are wine trends worth looking into for some excellent value selections.
Pull out the world map
Becoming a sommelier has a tremendous amount to do with geography, which is another good reason to put them to work for you when it comes to finding good-value wines. You don't need to know every minor wine-producing region, or even every major one, but you can do yourself a service by getting to know a couple of important regions for the styles or grapes you most like and then getting to know their neighbors.
"Look for regions that are just outside the famous regions," Patricia said. "Maybe Sancerre is getting a little too expensive, but there are plenty of lovely sauvignon blancs from Touraine to try. Napa Valley prices are insane! Let's try something from the El Dorado foothills, instead."
It can also be valuable to learn what New World or other emerging regions are producing similar style wines to some of the heavy hitters, as these are often places that over-deliver for their price point. If you love big cabernet sauvignons from Bordeaux or Napa Valley, look for big reds from Chile or Washington state to save money without sacrificing quality. Opulent chardonnays aren't limited to France and California either, with gorgeous, wallet-friendly expressions coming from Australia and South Africa.
Explore entry-level wines
The world's most famous wine producers became so for making some of the world's most legendary wines, which command top dollar. But these are very rarely the only wines they make, and most offer bottles that come from broader, less expensive wine regions than their top cuvées.
"Love dry Grosses Gewächs riesling but can't shell out $100? Try a dry Trocken riesling from the same estate at a quarter of the cost," Patricia said. "Wish you could splurge on Puligny-Montrachet? Try your favorite producer's Bourgogne Blanc, which can often be a blend of declassified fruit from younger vines."
Further to looking more broadly at the wine map, it can also be a savvy financial strategy to try less famous grapes from very famous producers. "Try different grape varieties from storied producers," Patricia said. "Love a particular Barolo? Try their Barbera d'Asti and get the same great winemaking with a different grape that costs way less to make."
Consider a wine club membership
Some wine stores offer membership deals that are worth looking into. "There are usually discounts for members and you get a lot more variety each period than you would be as a member of a winery's club," Patricia said. "For example, members of DecantSF's bottle clubs get 10% off any reorders of wines featured in clubs, waived corkage fees for drinking bottles in the store, complimentary wine flights, discounts on classes, presales and other perks."
As for online wine memberships or subscriptions, she advised applying healthy skepticism. "Stay away from online-only wine clubs that want you to be an 'investor,' or use an algorithm quiz instead of a sommelier to match your preferences, or guarantee a case of wine for way too cheap," Patricia said. "These are often the lowest quality wines using mass-produced fruit and exploited labor that's blended and bottled under fantasy names. You may as well buy from the bottom shelf at Walmart."
However, if your area doesn't sport a reputable wine store, we've vetted some online wine clubs for you with CNET's best wine club for 2023. Some online wine retailers, such as Wine.com, also offer introductory deals for first-time buyers, and Last Bottle periodically offers marathon buying weekends, all of which can be a good way to stock up.
Buy wine in bulk
Buying in bulk is a time-honored, money-saving strategy, and it surely doesn't stop with wine. "Buy more, save more," Patricia said. "For example, DecantSF gives a 5% discount on six bottles, or a 10% discount on 12-plus bottles." You can also save on shipping or delivery by stocking up on wine several times throughout the year, rather than popping out for a bottle for every individual occasion that necessitates one. Larger format bottles as well, such as magnums, or even boxed wine -- yes, I said it -- from reputable producers can save you some money.